From Cobb’s Bill of Fare, by Irvin S. Cobb, Illustrated by Peter Newell and James Preston; New York: George H. Doran Company, 1913; pp. 45-80.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


Black and white humorous drawing of a woman, in a sleeveless gown with full-length gloves, and her mouth open and brows arched ridiculously high above her forehead, singing or gasping.  She has a feather  above her ear coming from a jeweled headband.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


IF YOU, the reader are anything like me, the writer, it happens to you about every once in so long that some well-meaning but semi-witted friend rigs a deadfall for you, and traps you and carries you off, a helpless creature, for an evening among the real music-lovers.

Catching you, so to speak, with your defense leveled and your breastworks unmanned, he speaks to you substantially as follows: “Old man, we’re going to have few people up to the house tonight — just a little informal affair, you understand, with a song or two and some music — and the missus and I would appreciate it mightily if you’d put on your Young Prince Charmings and drop in on us along toward eight. How about it — can we count on you to be among those prominently present?”


Forewarned is forearmed, and you know all about this person already. You know him to be one of the elect in the most exclusive musical coterie of your fair city, wherever your fair city may be. You know him to be on terms of the utmost intimacy with the works of all the great composers. Bill Opus and Jeremiah Fugue have no secrets from him — none whatever — and in conversation he creates the impression that old Issy Sonata was his first cousin. He can tell you offhand which one of the Shuberts — Lee or Jake — wrote that Serenade. He speaks of Mozart and Beethoven in such a way a stranger would probably get the idea that Mote and Bate used to work for his folks. He can go to a musical show, and while the performance is going on he can tell everybody in his section just which composer each song number was stolen from, humming the original air aloud to show the points of resemblance. He can do this, I say, and, what is more, he does do it. At the table d’hote place, when the Neapolitan troubadours come out in their little green jackets and their wide red sashes he is right 49 there at the middle of the table, poised and waiting; and when they put their heads together and lean in toward the center and sing their national air, Come Into the Garlic, Maud, it is he who beats time for them with his handy lead-pencil, only pausing occasionally to point out errors in technic and execution on the part of the performers. He is that kind of pest, and you know it.

What you should do under these circumstances, after he has invited you to come up to his house, would be to look him straight in the eye and say to him: “Well, old chap, that’s awfully kind of you to include me in your little musical party, and just to show you how much I appreciate it and how I feel about it here’s something for you.” And then hit him right where his hair parts with a cut-glass paperweight or a bronze clock or a fire-ax or something, after which you should leap madly upon his prostrate form and dance on his cozy corner with both feet and cave in his inglenook for him. That is what you should do, but, being a vacillating person — I am still assuming, you see, that you are constituted as I am — you weakly 50 surrender and accept the invitation and promise to be there promptly on time, and he goes away to snare more victims in order to have enough to make a mess.

And so it befalls at the appointed time that you deck your form in your after-six-P. M. clothes and go up. On the way you get full and fuller of dark forebodings at every step; and your worst expectations are realized as soon as you enter and are relieved of your hat by a colored person in white gloves, and behold spread before you a great horde of those ladies and gentlemen whose rapt expressions and general air of eager expectancy stamp them as true devotees of whatever is most classical in the realm of music. You realize that in such a company as this you are no better than a rank outsider, and that it behooves you to attract as little attention as possible.[51] There is nobody else here who will be interested in discussing with you whether the Giants or the Cubs will finish first next season;[52]
nobody except you who cares a whoop how Indiana will go for president — in fact, most of them probably haven’t heard that Indiana 53 was thinking of going. Their souls are soaring among the stars in a rarefied atmosphere of culture, and even if you could you wouldn’t dare venture up that far with yours, for fear of being seized by an uncontrollable impulse to leap off and end all, the same as some persons are affected when on the roof of a tall building. So you back into the nearest corner and try to look like a part of the furniture — and wait in dumb misery.

Black and white drawing of a thin girl playing vigorously on the piano, the music is flying off to the side and she is frowning with determination.


Usually you don’t have to wait very long. These people are beggars for punishment and like to start early. It is customary to lead off the program with a selection on the piano by a distinguished lady graduate of somebody-with-an-Italian-name’s school of piano expression. Under no circumstances is it expected that this lady will play anything you can understand or that I could understand. It would be contrary to the ethics of her calling and deeply repugnant to her artistic temperament to play a tune that would sound well on a phonograph record. This would never do. She comes forward, stripped for battle, and 54 bows and peels off her gloves and fiddles with the piano-stool until she gets it adjusted to suit her, and then she sits down, prepared to render an immortal work composed by one of the old masters who was intoxicated at the time.

She starts gently. She throws her head far back and closes her eyes dreamily, and hits the keys a soft, dainty little lick — tippy-tap! Then leaving a call with the night clerk for eight o’clock in the morning, she seems to drift off into a peaceful slumber, but awakens on the moment and hurrying all the way up to the other end of Main Street she slams the bass keys a couple of hard blows — bumetty-bum! And so it goes for quite a long spell after that: Tippy-tap! — off to the country for a week-end party, Friday to Monday; bumetty-bum! — six months elapse between the third and fourth acts; tippetty-tip! — two years later; dear me, how the old place has changed! Biffetty-biff! Gracious, how time flies, for here it is summer again, and the flowers are all in bloom! You sink farther and farther into your chair and debate with yourself 55 whether you ought to run like a coward or stay and die like a hero. One of your legs goes to sleep and the rest of you envies the leg. You can feel your whiskers growing, and you begin to itch in two hundred separate places, but can’t scratch.

The strangest thing about it is that those round you appear to be enjoying it. Incredible though it seems, they are apparently finding pleasure in this. You can tell that they are enjoying themselves because they begin to act as real music-lovers always act under such circumstances — some put their heads on one side and wall up their eyes in a kind of dying-calf attitude and listen so hard you can hear them listening, and some bend over toward their nearest neighbors and murmur their rapture. It is all right for them to murmur, but if you so much as scrooge your feet, or utter a low, despairing moan or anything, they all turn and glare at you reproachfully and go “Sh!” like a collection of steam-heating fixtures. Depend on them to keep you in your place!

All of a sudden the lady operator comes out of her trance. She comes out of it with 56 a violent start, as though she had just been bee-stung. She now cuts loose, regardless of the piano’s intrinsic value and its associations to its owners. She skitters her flying fingers up and down the instrument from one end to the other, producing a sound like hailstones falling on a tin roof. She grabs the helpless thing by its upper lip and ties to tear all its front teeth out with her bare hands. She fails in this, and then she goes mad from disappointment and in a frenzy resorts to her fists.

As nearly s you are able to gather, a terrific fire has broken out in one of the most congested tenement districts. You can hear the engines coming and the hook-and-ladder trucks clattering over the cobbles. Ambulances come, too, clanging their gongs, and one of them runs over a dog; and a wall falls, burying several victims in the ruin. [57]At this juncture persons begin jumping out of the top-floor windows, [58]
holding cooking stoves in their arms, and a team runs away and plunges through a plate-glass window into a tinware and crockery store. People are all running round and shrieking, and the 59 dog that was run over is still yelping — he wasn’t killed outright evidently, but only crippled — and several tons of dynamite explode in a basement.

As the crashing reverberations die away the lady arises, wan but game, and bows low in response to the applause and backs away, leaving the wreck of the piano jammed back on its haunches and trembling like a leaf in every limb.

All to yourself, off in your little corner, you are thinking that surely this has been suffering and disaster enough for one evening and everybody will be willing to go away and seek a place of quiet. But no. In its demand for fresh horrors this crowd is as insatiate as the ancient Romans used to be when Nero was giving one of those benefits at the Colosseum for the fire sufferers of his home city. There now advances to the platform a somber person of a bass aspect, he having a double-yolk face and a three-ply chin and a chest like two or three chests.

Black and white drawing of a stout man, standing in concert garb, wth his hand on his chest and his mouth open singing.


You know in advance what the big-mouthed black bass is going to sing — there is only one regular song for a bass singer to 60 sing. From time to time insidious efforts have been made to work in songs for basses dealing with the love affairs of Bedouins and the joys of life down in a coal mine; but after all, to a bass singer who really values his gift of song and wishes to make the most of it, there is but one suitable selection, beginning as follows:

Ro-hocked in the cra-hadle of the da-heep,
I la-hay me down in pe-heace to sa-leep!
Collum and pa-heaceful be my sa-leep
Ro-hocked in the cra-hadle of the da-heep!

That is the orthodox offering for a bass. The basses of the world have always used it, I believe, and generally to advantage. From what I have been able to ascertain I judge that it was first written for use on the Ark. Shem sang it probably.[61] If there is anything in this doctrine of heredity Ham specialized in banjo solos [62]
and soft-shoe dancing, and Japhet, I take it, was the tenor — he certainly had a tenor-sounding kind of a name. So it must have been Shem, and undoubtedly he sang it when the animals 63 were hungry, so as to drown out the sounds of their roaring.

Black and white drawing of a very stout man, with a beard, and headband, in a toga looking at a startled collection of animals.


So this, his descendant — this chip off the old cheese, as it were — stands up on the platform facing you, with his chest well extended to show his red suspender straps peeping coyly out from the arm openings of his vest, and he inserts one hand into his bosom, and over and over again he tells you that he now contemplates laying himself down in peace to sleep — which is more than anybody else on the block will be ale to do; and he rocks you in the cradle of the deep until you are as seasick as a cow. You could stand that, maybe, if only he wouldn’t make faces at you while he sings. Some day I am going to take the time off to make scientific research and ascertain why all bass singers make faces when they are singing. Surely there’s some psychological reason for this, and if there isn’t it should be stopped by legislative enactment.

When Sing-Bad the Sailor has quit rocking the boat and gone ashore, a female singer generally obliges and comes off the nest after a merry lay, cackling her triumph. 64 Then there is something more of a difficult and painful nature on the piano; and nearly always, too, there is a large lady wearing a low-vamp gown on a high-arch form, who in flute-like notes renders one of those French ballads that’s full of la-las and is supposed to be devilish and naughty because nobody can understand it. For the finish, some person addicted to elocution usually recite a poem to piano accompaniment. The poem Robert of Sicily is much used for these purposes, and whenever I hear it Robert invariably has my deepest sympathy and so has Sicily. Toward midnight a cold collation is served, and you recapture your hat and escape forth into the starry night, swearing to yourself that never again will you permit yourself to be lured into an orgy of the true believers.

But the next time an invitation comes along you will fall again. Anyhow that’s what I always do, meanwhile raging inwardly and cursing myself for a weak and spineless creature, who doesn’t know when he’s well off. Yet I would not be regarded as one who is insensible to the charms of 65 music. In its place I like music, if it’s the kind of music I like. These times, when so much of our music is punched out for us by machinery like buttonholes and the air vents in Swiss cheese, and then is put up in cans for the trade like Boston beans and baking-powder, nothing gives me more pleasure than to drop a nickel in the slot and hear an inspiring selection by the author of Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

I am also partial to band music. When John Philip Sousa comes to town you can find me down in the very front row. I appreciate John Philip Sousa when he faces me and shows me that breast full of medals extending from the whiskerline to the beltline, and I appreciate him still more when he turns round and gives me a look at that back of his. Since Colonel W. F. Cody practically retired and Miss Mary Garden went away to Europe, I know of no public back which for inherent grace and poetry of spinal motion can quite compare with Mr. Sousa’s.

I am in my element then. I do not care so very much for Home, Sweet Home, as 66 rendered with so many variations that its’ almost impossible to recognize the old place any more; but when they switch to a march, a regular Sousa march full of um-pahs, then I begin to spread myself. A little tingle of anticipatory joy runs through me as Mr. Sousa advances to the footlights and first waves his baton at the great big German who plays the little shiny thing that looks like a hypodermic and sounds like stepping on the cat, and then turns the other way and waves it at the little bit of a German who plays the big thing that looks like a ventilator off an ocean liner and sounds like feeding-time at the zoo. And then he makes the invitation general and calls up the brasses and the drums and the woods and the woodwinds, and also the thunders and the lightnings and the cyclones and the earthquakes.

And three or four of the trombonists pull the slides away out and let go full steam right in my face, with a blast that blows my hair out by the roots,[67] and all hands join in and make so much noise that you can’t hear the music.[68]
And I enjoy it more than words can tell!

Black and white drawing of a row of trombone plays and a stout man seated right in front of them and smiling hugely.


On the other hand, grand wopra does not appeal to me. I can enthuse over the robin’s song in the spring, and the sound of the summer wind rippling through the ripened wheat is not without its attractions for me; but when I hear people going into convulsions of joy over Signor Massacres’s immortal opera of Medulla Oblongata I feel that I am out of my element and I start back-pedaling. Lucy D. Lammermore may have been a lovely person, but to hear a lot of foreigners singing about her for three hours on a stretch does not appeal to me. I have a better use for my little two dollars. For that amount I can go to a good minstrel show and sit in a box.

You may recall when Strauss’ Electra was creating such a furor in this country a couple of years ago. All the people you met were talking about it whether they knew anything about it or not, as generally they didn’t. I caught the disease myself; I went to hear it sung.

I only lasted a little while — I confess it unabashedly — if there is such as word as unabashedly — and if there isn’t then I confess 70 it unashamedly. As well as a mere layman could gather from the opening proceedings, this opera of Elektra was what the life story of the Bender family of Kansas would be if set to music by Fire-Chief Croker. In the quieter moments of the action, when nobody was being put out of the way, half of the chorus assembled on one side of the stage and imitated the last ravings of John McCullough, and the other half went over on the other side of the stage and clubbed in and imitated Wallace, the Untamable Lion, while the orchestra, to show its impartiality, imitated something else — Old Home Week in a boiler factory, I think. It moved me strangely — strangely and also rapidly.

Taking advantage of one of those periods of comparative calm I arose and softly stole away. I put a dummy in my place to deceive the turnkeys and I found a door providentially unlocked and I escaped out into the night. Three or four thousand automobiles were charging up and down Broadway, and there was a fire going on a couple of blocks up the street, and I think a suffragette 71 procession was passing, too; but after what I’d just been through the quiet was very soothing to my eardrums. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed anything more than the last part of Elektra, that I didn’t hear.

Yet my reader should not argue from this admission that I am deaf to the charms of the human voice when raised in song. Un-naturalized aliens of a beefy aspect vocalizing in a strange tongue while an orchestra of two hundreds pieces performs — that, I admit, is not for me. But just let a pretty girl in a white dress with a flower in her hair come out on a stage, and let her have nice clear eyes and a big wholesome-looking mouth, and let her open that mouth and show a double row of white teeth that’d remind you of the first roasting ear of the season — just let her be all that and do all that, and then let her look right at me and sing The Last Rose of Summer or Annie Laurie or Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms — and I am hers to command, world without end, forever and ever, amen! My eyes cloud up for a rainy 72 spell, and in my throat there comes a lump so big I feel like a coach-whip snake that has inadvertently swallowed a china darning-egg. And when she is through I am the person sitting in the second row down front who applauds until the flooring gives way and the plastering is jarred loose on the next floor. She can sing for me by the hour and I’ll sit there by the hour and listen to her, and forget that there ever was such a person in the whole world as the late Vogner! That’s the kind of a music-lover I am, and I suspect, if the truth were known, there are a whole lot more just like me.

If I may be excused for getting sort of personal and reminiscent at this point I should like to make brief mention here of the finest music I ever heard. As it happened this was instrumental music. I had come to New York with a view to revolutionizing metropolitan journalism, and journalism had shown a reluctance amounting to positive diffidence about coming forward and being revolutionized. Pending the time when it should see fit to do so, I was stopping at a boarding house on West Fifty-Seventh 73 Street. It has been my observati0n that practically everybody who comes to New York stops for a while in a boarding house on West Fifty-Seventh Street.

West Fifty-Seventh Street was where I was established, in a hall bedroom on the top floor — a hall bedroom so form-fitting and cozy that when I went to be I always opened the transom to prevent a felling of closeness across the chest. If I had as many as three callers in my room of an evening and one of them got up to go first, the others had to sit quietly while he was picking out his own legs. But up to the time I speak of I hadn’t had any callers. I hadn’t been there very long and I hadn’t met any of the other boarders socially, except at the table, I had only what you might call a feeding acquaintance with them.

Christmas Eve came round. I was a thousand miles from home and felt a million. I shouldn’t be surprised if I was a little bit homesick. Anyhow it was Christmas Eve, and it was snowing outside according to the orthodox Christmas Eve formula, and upward of five million other people in 74 New York were getting ready for Christmas without my company, co-operation or assistance. You’d be surprised to know how lonesome you can feel in the midst of five million people — until you try it on a Christmas Eve.

After dinner I went up to my room and sat down with my back against the door and my feet on the window-ledge, and I rested one elbow in the washpitcher and put one knee on the mantel and tried to read the newspapers. The first thing I struck was a Christmas poem, a sentimental Christmas poem, full of allusions to the family circle, and the old homestead, and the stockings hanging by the fireplace, and all that sort of thing.

That was enough. I put on my hat and overcoat and went down into the street. The snow was coming down in long, slanting lines and the sidewalks were all white, and where the lamplight shone on them they looked like the frosting on birthday cakes. People laden with bundles were diving in and out of all the shops. Every other shop widow had a holly wreath hung in it, and 75 when the doors were opened those spicy Christmassy smells of green hemlock and pine came gushing out in my face.

So far as I could tell, everybody in New York — except me — was buying something for his or her or some other body’s Christmas. It was a tolerably lonesome sensation. I walked two blocks, loitering sometimes in front of a store. Nobody spoke to me except a policeman. He told me to keep moving. Finally I went into a little family liquor store. Strangely enough, considering the season, there was nobody there except the proprietor. He was reading a German newspaper behind the bar. I conferred with him concerning the advisability of an egg-nog. I mentioned two old friends of mine, named Tom and Jerry, respectively, and he didn’t know them either. So I compromised on a hot lemon toddy. The lemon was one that had grown up with him in the liquor business, I think, and it wasn’t what you would call a spectacular success as a hot toddy; but it was warming, anyhow, and that helped. I 76 expanded a trifle. I asked him whether he wouldn’t take something on me.

He took a small glass of beer! He was a foreigner and he probably knew no better, so I suppose I shouldn’t have judged him too harshly. But it was Christmas Eve and snowing outside — and he took a small beer!

I paid him and came away. I went back to my hall bedroom up on the top floor and sat down at the window with my face against the pane, like Little Maggie in the poem.

By now the pavements were two inches deep in whiteness and in the circle of light around an electric lamp up at the corner of Ninth Avenue I could see, dimly, the thick, whirling white flakes chasing one another about madly, playing a Christmas game of their own. Across the way foot-passengers were still passing in a straggly stream. I heard the flat clatter of feet upon the stairs outside, heard someone wish somebody else a merry Christmas, and heard the other person grunt in a non-committal sort of way. There was the sound of a hall door slamming somewhere on my floor. 77 After that there was silence — the kind of silence that you can break off in chunks and taste.

It continued to snow. I reckon I must have sat there an hour or more.

Down in the street four stories below I heard something — music. I raised the sash and looked out. An Italian had halted in front of the boarding house with a grind organ and he was turning the crank and the thing was playing. It wasn’t much of a grind organ as grind organs go. I judge it must have been the original grind organ that played with Booth and Barrett. It had lost a lot of its most important works, and it had the asthma and the heaves and one thing and another the matter with it.

But the tune it was playing was My Old Kentucky Home — and Kentucky was where I’d come from. The Italian played it through twice, once on his own hook and once because I wend downstairs and divided my money with him.

I regard that as the finest music I ever heard.

As I was saying before, the classical stuff 78 may do for those who like it well enough to stand it, but the domestic article suits me. I like the kind of beer that this man Bach turned out in the spring of the year, but I don’t seem to be able to care much for his music. And so far as Chopin is concerned, I hope you’ll all do your Christmas Chopin early.